Our Readings for this upcoming Lord’s Day involve a meditation on both God’s mercy and his justice, and the complex way both virtues of God are expressed in his government of human affairs in general and his people in particular. We see that God’s apparent tolerance of evil in the short-term is an expression of his mercy and desire that all should repent; yet ultimately God can and will establish justice.
1. Reading 1 Wis 12:13, 16-19
There is no god besides you who have the care of all,
that you need show you have not unjustly condemned.
For your might is the source of justice;
your mastery over all things makes you lenient to all.
For you show your might when the perfection of your power is disbelieved;
and in those who know you, you rebuke temerity.
But though you are master of might, you judge with clemency,
and with much lenience you govern us;
for power, whenever you will, attends you.
And you taught your people, by these deeds,
that those who are just must be kind;
and you gave your children good ground for hope
that you would permit repentance for their sins.
The Wisdom of Solomon, one of the last Old Testament books to be written, provides perhaps the most thorough treatment of the final judgment, resurrection, and eternal life of any book prior to the Gospels. Some see it as a canonical answer to the agnosticism of Ecclesiastes: if in Ecclesiastes Solomon expressed skepticism about the life to come and despondency over the prospect of death, in Wisdom he has found faith that death is not the final answer, and righteousness finds its reward in the life to come.
The Book of Wisdom was almost certainly written first in Greek, in the third or second century BC, probably in Alexandria, Egypt, the premier center of Hellenistic Jewish culture in antiquity. Because of its late origin, Greek language, and Alexandrian connections, it was not received as canonical in Rabbinic Judaism, whose roots were in the Pharisee movement in Palestine. However, it was received as canonical among Greek-speaking Jews in the diaspora and by the early Church. Indeed, it was quite popular among the Fathers, who quoted it frequently and explicitly as Scripture.
In the Septuagint tradition, the book was called Sophia Salōmōnos (Wisdom of Solomon) and eventually found a stable place in the canonical order after Job, thus providing a robust vision of the life to come after Job’s struggles with the injustices of this present life. In the Vulgate tradition, the book’s full title is Liber Sapientiae Solomonis (The Book of the Wisdom of Solomon), and it was placed immediately after the “three books of Solomon” (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song) proper, because the pseudepigraphal nature of Wisdom was long recognized. Falling in this order, the four books Proverbs through Wisdom present a kind of theological odyssey of the “canonical Solomon”:
in Proverbs, he attains the wisdom that leads to temporal success;
in Ecclesiastes, he despairs of temporal success because death renders it vain;
in the Song, he discovers that love is stronger than death (Song 8:6);
in Wisdom, he falls in love with Lady Wisdom and so attains immortality.
The Book of Wisdom falls naturally into two main parts. In the first (chs. 1-9), Solomon exhorts the “rulers of the earth” to love righteousness (1:1), which will enable them to become wise (1:4) and reign forever (6:20-21), following Solomon’s own example (chs. 7-9). In the second part (chs. 10–18), the sacred author seeks to demonstrate his thesis about the connection of righteousness, wisdom, and immortal reign by tracing and justifying Wisdom’s actions through the sacred history of Israel, from Creation to the Exodus.
The first part (chs. 1-9) also breaks down into two main sections: In chs. 1-6, Solomon focuses on the relationship between righteousness, wisdom, and immortality, especially highlighting the eternal life of the righteous with God, and the judgment that will face the unrighteous after death. In chs. 7-9, Solomon teaches the “rulers of the earth” how he himself attained wisdom, namely, by seeking here in humble prayer from God, and then living in spousal communion with her thereafter.
The second part of the book (chs. 10-18) has a much different feel than the first, as Solomon traces the activities of Wisdom through salvation history. One chapter covers Wisdom’s work from Creation up to the Exodus (ch. 10), whereas eight chapters are devoted to Wisdom in the Exodus itself (chs. 11-19). Within his treatment of Wisdom’s actions in the Exodus, he incorporates a digression on God’s mercy (11:17-12:22) and on the foolishness of idolatry (13:1-15:17).
The Wisdom of Solomon is read relatively frequently in the contemporary lectionary, especially for such a short Old Testament book. This Sunday’s reading comes from the digression on mercy during the discussion of God’s wisdom through the Exodus. Combined with the parable of the weeds and the wheat in the Gospel (Matt 13:24-43), this reading helps us understand that God’s refusal to root up the weeds (sinners) from within the Church is not a failure of his justice but an expression of his mercy, since he desires that all may come to salvation.
Wisdom affirms that God’s supreme power does not imply that God is a tyrant. Our God is a God strong enough to be gentle; that is, challenges to his authority do not, so to speak, shake his self-confidence and provoke a violent response, as is the case with human dictators or “strongmen.” Human rulers should follow the divine example: power is combined with justice and kindness.
In the context of Wisdom 12, the sacred author is discussing in particular God’s mercy on the Canaanites: despite their moral evil, God did not wipe them out at once, but allowed them hundreds of years and many opportunities to repent. To repent of what? “Their merciless slaughter of children,” and “these parents who murder helpless lives” (Wis 12:5-6). The Canaanites practiced child sacrifice to their gods, which also served as a kind of birth control—since promiscuous sexual activity in the worship of their divinities produced “unwanted” children. So we see how similar ancient Canaanite culture is to the modern West, where promiscuous sexual activity is sought out and celebrated, with the result that one in five children is killed in the womb, since the right to kill one’s child is considered a foundational principle of our culture, especially by our Supreme Court. Wisdom gives us hope that America and similar corrupt societies will not be destroyed at once, but will be given time and opportunity to repent and turn to God.
2. Responsorial Psalm Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16
R/ (5a) Lord, you are good and forgiving.
You, O LORD, are good and forgiving,
abounding in kindness to all who call upon you.
Hearken, O LORD, to my prayer
and attend to the sound of my pleading.
R/ Lord, you are good and forgiving.
All the nations you have made shall come
and worship you, O LORD,
and glorify your name.
For you are great, and you do wondrous deeds;
you alone are God.
R/ Lord, you are good and forgiving.
You, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in kindness and fidelity.
Turn toward me, and have pity on me;
give your strength to your servant.
R/ Lord, you are good and forgiving.
Psalm 86 is a plaintive cry of the righteous sufferer, a man undergoing persecution because “insolent men have risen up against me; a band of ruthless men seek my life, and they do not set thee before them” (v. 14). In the cry of the psalmist, we see expressed the emotion of every person who has attempted to say what is true and right, although it is unpopular and “politically incorrect,” and as a result suffered misrepresentation, character assassination, public mockery, social media lynching, firing, social or physical abuse, even torture and death. Despite all this, the psalmist’s hope is in God, because “great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (v. 13). The literal sense of the text is a kind of resurrection from the dead, which may have been poetic hyperbole for David himself, the traditional author of the psalm, but takes on greater power in light of the resurrection of the Son of David. The Psalm reminds us that God’s justice and mercy will be accomplished, whether in this life or at the end of time.
3. Reading 2 Rom 8:26-27
Brothers and sisters:
The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.
The second reading continues to work through the Epistle to the Romans. In the previous verses, St. Paul gives us hope for our present sufferings, reminding them that they are as nothing compared to the glory and love that await us in the presence of God in the next life. We must truly believe this in order to persevere in a life of love in the present. Sometimes the believer feels so beleaguered or overwhelmed by the apparent success of lies, falsehood, and evil in the present life, that he or she is not even certain how or for what to pray. In this case, we have the assurance that the Holy Spirit, given to us in Baptism, prays to God on our behalf, in a way that transcends words! What a powerful promise from the Apostle, and what little stock we usually put in his words and this truth! If we really believed what St. Paul says—and it is true!—with what greater confidence we would pray, and what greater priority we would place upon spending time in God’s presence, interceding for ourselves, the Church, our loved ones, and the world.
4. The Gospel is Mt 13:24-43. It’s a bit lengthy, so I will comment on it in parts.
Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying:
“The kingdom of heaven may be likened
to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
While everyone was asleep his enemy came
and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off.
When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well.
The slaves of the householder came to him and said,
‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field?
Where have the weeds come from?’
He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’
His slaves said to him,
‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds
you might uproot the wheat along with them.
Let them grow together until harvest;
then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,
“First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;
but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
Matthew 13 comprises the third of five major discourses that structure the Gospel of Matthew: (1) The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7); (2) The Missionary Discourse (Matt 10); (3) The Parables of the Kingdom Discourse (Matt 13); (4) the Church Discourse (Matt 18); and (5) the Eschatological Discourse (Matt 24-25).
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells seven parables about the Kingdom of Heaven. All of them are important to ponder, because they teach us about the nature of the Church. The Church is both the Kingdom of David (since ruled by Jesus the Son of David) and the Kingdom of God/Heaven (since ruled by God). The Parables of the Kingdom help us to understand that the Kingdom is truly present in the Church, despite appearances to the contrary.
One of the reasons we may disbelieve that the Church is the manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven is the presence of hypocrites and other willful sinners within the visible Church. In the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, Jesus addresses and explains why God permits this to be the case. God permits sinners within the Church to allow them the opportunity of repentance. Were he to execute judgment in this age, some destined for repentance would be judged prematurely. The Church Fathers typically understood this parable as counseling against too quickly and rashly condemning the imperfect believer:
For room for repentance is left, and we are warned that we should not hastily cut off a brother, since one who is to-day corrupted with an erroneous dogma, may grow wiser tomorrow, and begin to defend the truth; wherefore it is added, Lest in gathering together the tares ye root out the wheat also. (St. Jerome, Catena Aurea ad loc.)
He proposed another parable to them.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed
that a person took and sowed in a field.
It is the smallest of all the seeds,
yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants.
It becomes a large bush,
and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.’”
Here our Lord makes an allusion to several passages of the Old Testament where a king or a dynasty is likened to a great tree that provides shelter and food to the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky: Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4; Pharaoh in Ezekiel 31; and the Son of David in Ezekiel 17. Of particular importance is Ezek 17:22-25, which predicts a coming time when God will replant the royal house of Israel (i.e. the House of David) and it shall become a great, life-giving “tree” (international kingdom or empire). We can understand Jesus himself to be the “mustard seed,” the “smallest of seeds” in the sense that he is the humblest of men, “despised and rejected” by men, ignored by his own people to whom he comes. He is “sowed in the field” of this world through his death and burial, yet “sprouts” in the resurrection to become, through his mystical body, the largest and longest-lived kingdom the world has ever known: a spiritual and sacramental kingdom that still boasts over a billion adherents, even if many of these be “weeds” spoken of in the earlier parable.
He spoke to them another parable.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast
that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”
This parable describes the quiet and subtle growth and influence of the Church throughout society. In the early centuries of the Church, Christians were everywhere publically scorned and persecuted, yet somehow the numbers of Christians kept “invisibly” increasing, to the consternation of the pagan elite who ruled the Roman Empire. In our own age, the Church is mocked and scorned at all points in public and private, yet society only manages to limp along based on concepts (human rights, the dignity of the person, the rights of the poor) and institutions (the hospital; the university) borrowed from the Church. So the influence of the Gospel is felt everywhere, even if the Church seems “absent” from the public square—like the invisible work of yeast in bread.
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables.
He spoke to them only in parables,
to fulfill what had been said through the prophet:
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation
of the world.
Then, dismissing the crowds, he went into the house.
His disciples approached him and said,
“Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”
He said in reply, “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man,
the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom.
The weeds are the children of the evil one,
and the enemy who sows them is the devil.
The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
Just as weeds are collected and burned up with fire,
so will it be at the end of the age.
The Son of Man will send his angels,
and they will collect out of his kingdom
all who cause others to sin and all evildoers.
They will throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
in the kingdom of their Father.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”
As I said above, the Church Fathers understood this parable to speak about the presence of hypocrites in the Church. Many schismatics throughout Church history have denied this sense of the text, and insisted that the visible church had to be pure. Typically, these schismatics break off with like-minded followers and establish a group aggressively regulated according to the mindset of the founding leader, and a certain visible moral rectitude is maintained in such a manner for perhaps a generation or so, before the schismatic group loses its momentum and begins to tolerate dissent and diversity within its own ranks. Countless “reform” groups have broken off the Church in this manner through history. These groups put stress on the fact that “the field is the world”—therefore, they interpret the parable as speaking of the mixture of followers of Christ and unbelievers in the world in general. However, they overlook that, at the end of the age, the Son of Man sends angels to root the weeds “out of his kingdom”! This clearly indicates that, prior to the end of the age (the final judgment), there are “those who cause others to sin” and “evildoers” present in Christ’s kingdom, which is the Church. Schismatic purist would prefer that Jesus told a parable in which the farmer planted all the good seed on one side of the field, and the enemy planted all the weeds on the other side, such that there was easy visible distinction between them. Sadly, that’s not the parable Jesus told.
So often we are scandalized by the behavior of other Catholics, even members of the hierarchy. I have known many who use the presence of hypocrites within the Church as an excuse for not participating in the sacraments or the life of the Church in general. I’ve never fully grasped the logic of this reasoning; it seems to me to be like refusing to attend an exercise class at the local YMCA, because not all the participants try their hardest. So the laziness of others means that you shouldn’t try to get in shape??
Regardless, Jesus tells us this parable so that we do not become surprised and scandalized by the presence of evildoers within his visible body. We should not conclude that, since the visible Church is not pure, the visible Church is not the manifestation of kingdom of God. Of course, the Church Triumphant is the Kingdom of God in the clearest and most direct sense; but the visible Church militant is also the Kingdom of God, despite the sins and failings of its members.
We should also keep in mind that, although in this life we may complain about God’s tolerance of “weeds” in the Church, at the final judgment we may find that we ourselves were “weeds” for whose conversion to “wheat” the Son of Man was patiently waiting! So often we are completely blind to our own sins and hypocrisy, but see clearly that of others. So elsewhere Jesus urges us to remove the “beam” from our own eye before taking the “speck” out of the eye of our brother (Matt 7:5).
Finally, this parable soberly warns us about the reality of final judgment. Contemporary sensibilities might prefer a vision of reality in which “all dogs (and people) go to heaven,” but Jesus’ actual teaching contradicts this. At times, we have to decide whether we are going to trust the word of Jesus on this issue, or take the word of modern theologians. Jesus’ warnings, here and elsewhere in the Gospel, are firm and straightforward, and in no way imply that hell is only a theoretical possibility that will never be realized by anyone. The reality is that we can so contort and distort our souls by our evil choices in this life, that we end up calling good evil and evil good, and rejecting the goodness of God for eternity. That is hell. From one perspective it is a punishment of sin; from another perspective, it is a freely chosen reality on our part. Let’s pray to the merciful God that he save us from our own hypocrisy and spiritual blindness, such that we may be true wheat, gathered into his barn!